Friday will be momentous and nerve-wracking for the family and friends of John Schalcosky, founder of the popular Facebook page “The Odd, Mysterious & Fascinating History of Pittsburgh.” Surgeons will slice John open and remove some of his parts, then sew him back together and hopefully resolve the health issues that have caused him so much grief and misery the past nine months.

John himself seems remarkably chill about the whole affair. On Monday, during a meeting in a booth at the Ross diner Kelly O’s, he spoke little about the procedure. He instead spent the morning poking at a stack of pancakes and committing acts of liberation – freeing from tombs of obscurity people he’d never met and who died decades or centuries ago.

You may or may not be familiar with some of the names: John Brashear, Helen Richey, Gustave Whitehead. They’re among the lesser known of Pittsburgh’s famous folk, not in league with Andy Warhol and Roberto Clemente, and therefore vulnerable to fading from communal memory.

Then John brought up the story of the Dempsey family. It’s a tragic tale. Five members of one family killed by a distraught relative on Christmas Eve in 1934. He wrote about this once in “Odd Pittsburgh,” and some people shuddered. It’s so sad! Why bring it up? Best to leave such gruesome tales in the past. 

“If you don’t tell the story, if you don’t mention their names, it’s like they never lived at all,” said John, 41. The victims died, and because of the way they died, nobody mentions their names. The murderer sentenced them to death and to a dark hole of obscurity.

Not on John’s watch, and not here in the PUP, either. So here we record the names of the five members of the Dempsey family: Walter, 42, Robert, 12, Walter Jr., 10, Thomas, 8, and David, 15 months.

Such acts of remembrance stem from John’s philosophy, which he repeats often: People die two deaths: The first is physical, the one that lands you in a grave. “The other,” he says, “is the last time somebody speaks your name.”

Driven by that philosophy, he’s been on a decade-long mission to rescue as many people and places as possible from death by disrememberment. (Yeah, we invented the word for this occasion.) “Odd Pittsburgh” can be considered a sort of rescue center, where people are pulled from the darkness of the forgotten. Take a quick glance at the page and you’ll see a post on Kay Neumann, who hosted a cooking show in the early days of Pittsburgh TV, and a picture of a man named Alexander Kidd selling turkeys at the old Diamond Market in 1945.

Places figure into John’s philosophy, too. The past is always present, he says. “As I’m driving down Fort Pitt Boulevard, past Point State Park, I can see Fort Pitt,” he said. “I can visualize it. When I look at an empty field there, I don’t see an empty field. I see the bastions.”

This perception of the physical world is connected to his sense of curiosity and to his obsession with research. He spends a lot of time on websites such as and He’s always digging into archives. His shelves are filled with books on Pittsburgh history – some of them quite rare. John is as likely to dive into the details of a fast food joint as he is to someone like James M. Riddle, who in 1815 published the first city directory.

“I was hungry one day and I wanted KFC, so I wondered, ‘Where was the first KFC in Pittsburgh?'” he said. “So I looked at old newspapers and found pictures of the Colonel [Sanders] on McKnight Road, and that opened up a whole Pandora’s box. OK, where was the first Arby’s? Where was the first Pizza Hut? The first McDonald’s? What is the story behind all all of these?”

All of this is reflected in “Odd Pittsburgh,” which is a celebration of the city and region’s past. The page presents readers with surprises, things about Pittsburgh they either didn’t know or had forgotten about. It also shows the familiar and gives people an opportunity to reminisce about their experiences in everyday places. In that way, it has built a community. In one example, a post showing a 1980s picture of the room-sized birdcage at the old Northway Mall prompted dozens of reader comments and stories:

My mom and aunt took me, my sister and our cousins to Northway Mall all the time back in the late ’60s and early 70s. Before the adults would turn us kids loose, they would always say, “Meet us at the birdcage in an hour.”

I have memories of my dad standing in front of this cage trying to get the mynah bird to say, “Hey, Joe, whadaya know?” He was successful, BTW.

One reader said his mother once stood near the birdcage and was pulled aside to take part in a taste testing of a product called Tuna Salad Helper, a product no other commenters could remember. “Must have not gone over very well!” mused one. Another commenter said her family had adopted some of the birds when the cage was dismantled. The memories continue on and on.

But let’s stop the memories for a moment and return to John’s health issues, because they are serious and acute.

His problems started in early May 2023 when he sat down at his piano to practice for an upcoming concert with the North Hills High School choir. John’s an accomplished pianist who has been playing since he was 5 years old, but on this day he couldn’t make his right hand work properly. Eventually his left hand was affected, too. It was weird.

He ended up in the hospital for a series of tests that determined he most likely suffered from a rare syndrome called Guillain-Barre. His hand eventually returned to normal until October when the paralysis returned, only this time it was worse. It was then affecting his ability to swallow. He ended up in a hospital emergency room and was admitted for an overnight stay. He was also, by now, experiencing severe abdominal pain.

Still, he resumed his normal life – working for an insurance company, telling ghost stories at a Halloween podcast at the Bottlerocket bar in Allentown and serving as a guide on a Burgh Bus tour exploring the history of Christmas in Pittsburgh. Immediately after the bus tour, John became violently ill but didn’t go to a hospital.

His weight dropped from 200 to 138 pounds. “You can’t believe the amount of excruciating pain I was dealing with,” he said. “I knew something had to be done. I was wasting away.”

He sought treatment. Doctors diagnosed him with diverticulitis and ulcerative colitis – basically, his bowels were a wreck of perforations and ulcers. He spent February in the hospital. When surgeons tried to remove his entire lower intestine, they discovered his organs were stuck together by scar-like tissue called abdominal adhesions, so they couldn’t complete the operation. After the surgery, John’s abdomen swelled and he began vomiting. Doctors removed nearly 3 liters of bile from his gut, attached ostomy bags to collect his waste and sent him home in mid-February.

A few hours later he ended up back in the hospital for an emergency surgery to deal with an intestinal blockage.

Again, he was released. This was in early March. A few days he later experienced seizures and tremors and nearly went into shock, so he was once again returned to the hospital, this time by ambulance, and diagnosed with with life-threatening deficiencies of potassium, sodium and magnesium, as well as malnutrition.

“This was the scariest night yet,” he posted on his personal Facebook page the next day. “I thought I wasn’t going to make it.” 

The health problems and pain sent him into depression. Writing or talking, even for a few minutes, exhausted him. The recovery, he had learned, would be long and difficult.

“So happy I was given a special hour to play piano & relax today in the hospital,” John wrote when posting this picture on March 9, 2024. “I’ve been through so much, this was a nice creative relief. ” (Photo by Lisa Schalcosky)

Several days later, on March 10, John sat up in a bed at a Pine hospital, looking gaunt but feeling better. The day before, he had ventured to the hospital’s first floor and played a few tunes on a piano in the lobby. Now he gazed out the window of his fifth-floor room at a car wash across the street and a Sheetz gas station/convenience store a few blocks away. His body was weakened, but he remained inquisitive.

“What was here?” he asked. “I mean, what was right here? I know there was the Starlight Drive-In, that used to be here. There was a mini amusement park next door. There was a jail-themed restaurant called the Convict Inn. You ate in jail cells, and the waiters dressed in white and black stripes.”

He looked closer.

“I remember there was a little old lady named Clara who owned a collectible antique store that was right where those trees are. The house is no longer there, but she was a little old lady who owned a house who sold antiques in her basement, and you could go in there and buy World War II outfits and stuff.”

He spoke that day of the unusual connections he’d discovered between his experience and that of Andy Warhol. It all began in May 2023 with an invitation to visit Warhol’s childhood home on Dawson Street in Oakland. Then he met with Warhol’s nephews James and Marty and has identified a number of odd coincidences connecting his illness with Warhol’s health problems – “synchronicities,” John calls them.

A few examples he points out: His weight after his last surgery is the exact weight of Warhol upon his death in 1987. John and Warhol were both diagnosed with hyponatremia, or water intoxification, on the same date of the year. Warhol’s surgical scar was the same length, 10 inches, as John’s.

Those connections are too complex to describe in a simple newspaper story. They delve into the intersection of history, art, mysticism and artificial intelligence. John has detailed them in an 8,000-word document called “Beyond the Silver Clouds – My Serendipitous Journey With Warhol’s Legacy.”

On the last day of April, John received more bad news: He learned he’d been fired from his job at an insurance company. The next day, a representative from the company showed up at his house and took all of his computers, including his personal machine. His job involved designing health insurance policies for millionaires, and the company was concerned about protecting sensitive information of folks who had so much money. John has yet to get his personal computer back.

He’s certain his firing is the result of his health issues. For weeks after his surgeries, he simply couldn’t work.

“I just didn’t have the energy to do anything,” he said. “It took me weeks just to get to the point where I could open my laptop.  Now I can get two hours of work done before I get exhausted. I used to work 20 hours a day.”

The firing feels like a betrayal by an industry both he and his father had devoted their lives to. “It killed my dad,” John said. Richard Schalcosky died in 2017. “He was working on his laptop on his deathbed.”

In some ways, John was headed down that same path. He never took his allowed vacations and worked for a decade for the company that fired him. He’s been gathering paperwork for an attorney who’s preparing a lawsuit.

John and his wife, Lisa, have saved money over the years, so they’re not in danger of losing their house or car, but bills pile up. The couple, who are raising three children, pay $2,500 each month for health care insurance through COBRA. John visits physicians two or three times each week, and a visiting nurse stops by regularly. In the basement of his home, plastic bins containing health care supplies are stacked against a wall.

John and Lisa began writing social media posts about John’s health issues in February, and they set up a GoFundMe page to help with expenses.

“Ordinarily, I keep my personal health matters private, yet the past six months have been the most challenging and painful period I’ve ever endured, compelling me to share my journey with you,” John wrote.

The community he’d built through his history posts took notice.

“John, you have thousands and thousands of friends out here that you will never meet in person, but we’re here,” wrote one reader. “Thank you for enriching the lives of Pittsburghers everywhere.”

From another commenter: “I retired some years ago to Florida and truly love your Odd Pittsburgh posts. I do get homesick, and it helps me stay connected to my roots. My prayers and good wishes are with you and your family.”

The outpouring surprised John and Lisa. “Out of the blue, people from all walks of life responded,” John said, “from thoughts and prayers to people donating money. It was like the power of Pittsburgh just pulled together. I’d never experienced that togetherness of the city.”

On Wednesday night, as he prepared to once again return to a hospital for surgery, John sat on his back porch and mused briefly on his immediate future.

“I’m optimistic about the surgery but not about the recovery,” he said. “I know how tough recovery is. I know what to expect this time. I’m not looking forward to having all the tubes and the pain, not being able to shower. A lot of it is mental. I’ll try to think hard about something else.”

“The past year has given me a much better outlook on life,” he added. “I’m not afraid to die. I’ve faced it already and have been given a second chance. Hopefully, I’ll get a third.”

Then he quickly shifted the conversation to other plans. With his energy returning, he’s embarked on two projects: mapping the Native American burial grounds in Allegheny County, and mapping the all of the film footage shot in Pittsburgh. The first clip he found shows Masons parading through Pittsburgh in 1898. That map includes significant scenes and locations from movies such as “Angels in the Outfield” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” (John’s interest in film dates to his teens; after graduating from North Hills High School in 2001, he attended Los Angeles Film School and UCLA, where he studied film composing.)

Lately he’s become obsessed with Pittsburgh’s firsts – first nighttime World Series game, first Ferris wheel, first commercial radio station, on and on. Maybe that could be a museum, he suggests. The first “World’s First” museum.

John doesn’t stop there. Maybe he could emulate Warhol’s “Factory” idea and create an “Odd Pittsburgh” factory where projects like films and tours and art could be nurtured. This won’t be a solo operation, he says. It’ll be a community thing.

“I don’t own any of these projects,” he said. “I’m just telling Pittsburgh’s story. I’ve just been uncovering it. The story involves us all.”

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at

Steve Mellon

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at